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Friedman: “The totally bogus ‘discrediting’ of climate science has had serious implications” — loss of clean energy leadership and jobs to China

By Joe Romm on September 20, 2010 at 9:56 am

"Friedman: “The totally bogus ‘discrediting’ of climate science has had serious implications” — loss of clean energy leadership and jobs to China"

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What a contrast. In a year that’s on track to be our planet’s hottest on record, America turned “climate change” into a four-letter word that many U.S. politicians won’t even dare utter in public. If this were just some parlor game, it wouldn’t matter. But the totally bogus “discrediting” of climate science has had serious implications. For starters, it helped scuttle Senate passage of the energy-climate bill needed to scale U.S.-made clean technologies, leaving America at a distinct disadvantage in the next great global industry. And that brings me to the contrast: While American Republicans were turning climate change into a wedge issue, the Chinese Communists were turning it into a work issue.

The NYT’s Tom Friedman continues to do some of the best reporting on the economic consequences of the GOP decision to block even the most business-oriented Republican-originated strategies for averting catastrophic climate change and promoting clean energy jobs (see “Invented here, sold there”).

He has op-ed from Tianjin, China, “Aren’t we clever?” that is worth excerpting at length:

“There is really no debate about climate change in China,” said Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, a nonprofit group working to accelerate the greening of China. “China’s leaders are mostly engineers and scientists, so they don’t waste time questioning scientific data.” The push for green in China, she added, “is a practical discussion on health and wealth. There is no need to emphasize future consequences when people already see, eat and breathe pollution every day.”

And because runaway pollution in China means wasted lives, air, water, ecosystems and money “” and wasted money means fewer jobs and more political instability “” China’s leaders would never go a year (like we will) without energy legislation mandating new ways to do more with less. It’s a three-for-one shot for them. By becoming more energy efficient per unit of G.D.P., China saves money, takes the lead in the next great global industry and earns credit with the world for mitigating climate change.

So while America’s Republicans turned “climate change” into a four-letter word “” J-O-K-E “” China’s Communists also turned it into a four-letter word “” J-O-B-S.

“China is changing from the factory of the world to the clean-tech laboratory of the world,” said Liu. “It has the unique ability to pit low-cost capital with large-scale experiments to find models that work.” China has designated and invested in pilot cities for electric vehicles, smart grids, LED lighting, rural biomass and low-carbon communities. “They’re able to quickly throw spaghetti on the wall to see what clean-tech models stick, and then have the political will to scale them quickly across the country,” Liu added. “This allows China to create jobs and learn quickly.”

The Chinese leadership definitely understands that the biggest job creating industry of the future will be in low carbon energy (see “Green Giant: Beijing’s crash program for clean energy“).  But their understanding of climate change does not appear to extend beyond the conventional view that it is a potentially serious, mostly long-term problem.  If they truly understood the dire nature of the problem — and how it will devastate their country — then they wouldn’t continue to be building coal plants at such a rapid pace.

The fact is, averting catastrophic climate change is almost certainly going to require unbuilding many of those coal plants — a costly waste of capital in any economy.  Perhaps the Chinese once thought — even recently — that they would get the West to pay them to shut those plants down.  But they could hardly believe that now.

At the World Economic Forum meeting here, I met Mike Biddle, founder of MBA Polymers, which has invented processes for separating plastic from piles of junked computers, appliances and cars and then recycling it into pellets to make new plastic using less than 10 percent of the energy required to make virgin plastic from crude oil. Biddle calls it “above-ground mining.” In the last three years, his company has mined 100 million pounds of new plastic from old plastic.Biddle’s seed money was provided mostly by U.S. taxpayers through federal research grants, yet today only his tiny headquarters are in the U.S. His factories are in Austria, China and Britain. “I employ 25 people in California and 250 overseas,” he says. His dream is to have a factory in America that would repay all those research grants, but that would require a smart U.S. energy bill. Why?

Americans recycle about 25 percent of their plastic bottles. Most of the rest ends up in landfills or gets shipped to China to be recycled here. Getting people to recycle regularly is a hassle. To overcome that, the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea “” and next year, China “” have enacted producer-responsibility laws requiring that anything with a cord or battery “” from an electric toothbrush to a laptop to a washing machine “” has to be collected and recycled at the manufacturers’ cost. That gives Biddle the assured source of raw material he needs at a reasonable price. (Because recyclers now compete in these countries for junk, the cost to the manufacturers for collecting it is steadily falling.)

“I am in the E.U. and China because the above-ground plastic mines are there or are being created there,” said Biddle, who just won The Economist magazine’s 2010 Innovation Award for energy/environment. “I am not in the U.S. because there aren’t sufficient mines.”

Biddle had enough money to hire one lobbyist to try to persuade the U.S. Congress to copy the recycling regulations of Europe, Japan and China in our energy bill, but, in the end, there was no bill. So we educated him, we paid for his tech breakthroughs “” and now Chinese and European workers will harvest his fruit. Aren’t we clever?

We must be really clever since we named ourselves homo sapiens sapiens, no?

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20 Responses to Friedman: “The totally bogus ‘discrediting’ of climate science has had serious implications” — loss of clean energy leadership and jobs to China

  1. Russell says:

    What a dismal way to begin National Talk Like A Climate Pirate Day

  2. James says:

    Although I’m no fan of China’s style of government the contrasting scientific illiteracy of many Western leaders and policy makers alarms me. Where are the likes of Benjamin Franklin today?

  3. Tim L. says:

    Driven by birthers, birchers, baggers, and bigots, we’ve gone from willful ignorance to willful stupidity.

  4. cervantes says:

    It is truly depressing that one of the two major parties in the U.S. — one that happens to be poised to gain control of the legislative power, or at least total ability to block any and all legislation — bases its political appeal on an unalloyed tissue of lies and bigoted fear mongering. Republicans’ true mission, of course, is to protect the privileges of the wealthy, but as that would not likely attract a majority of voters, they invent an alternate reality. They have sufficient money and media infrastructure to persuade a large segment of the population that we are not living in the universe in which we actually live. And it’s working.

    Sigh.

  5. Mark says:

    A subspecies is emerging:

    Homo sapiens stuitus. High population observed in Washington D.C.

  6. Dean says:

    China is schizophrenic because it is far less monolithic than the “communist” label would imply in days past. Local and regional decision-makers are far less knowledgeable or concerned about these issues and the center really doesn’t control then that strongly. They need lots of concentrated energy fast, and old technology is the easiest way to do that in the short run.

    As to Benjamin Franklin (and other founders), they based their hope for this country on the exercise of reason by average people. Nov 2 will tell us how far we have strayed from that. If only the Tea folks would realize that the only time a US president led US troops on the field was when George Washington did so – against tax protesters. There may be a long strain in US history for the likes of them, but it does not go back to the founders. Their kind caused great fear among the founders.

  7. Jeff Huggins says:

    For Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, and etc. To Consider . . .

    Although I enjoy and appreciate most of Thomas Friedman’s and Paul Krugman’s (and etc.) words on climate change, The New York Times itself has been part of the problem — it is (and has been) dropping a very big ball on its coverage of climate change! Any responsible analysis will show that to be the case, without doubt.

    So, in my view, unless both Friedman and Krugman are making serious and persistent weekly visits to the top office at The Times building, insisting that the Times improve its overall climate and energy coverage, and threatening to quit (and make a stink about it) if The Times doesn’t do so, they are dropping a big ball and enabling a major part of the problem.

    After some additional editing over the next few days, I’ll be submitting a (proposed) guest post to Joe regarding the media’s coverage of climate change.

    In the meantime, I’m hoping that Friedman and Krugman (as much as I appreciate their own columns) are doing what they SHOULD be doing, literally, to insist on improvement at The Times, given the stakes involved. It’s as simple as that. A very big part of the reason that society can’t seem to face up to, and address, climate change is that each professional discipline and set of people — even very concerned ones — lives within a self-imposed comfort zone that “prevents” it (in the minds of those in that profession) from living up to the full human responsibilities of individual humans. Many scientists don’t want to speak out: they see speaking out as not within the role of science. Many academics don’t want to lift a finger to genuinely intellectually confront other academics: they’re uncomfortable doing so. Journalists feel a “need” to follow some warped understanding of “balance” to the point where this “balance” does not lead to accurate understanding but, instead, leads away from it. And, columnists probably have some reason or another, in their minds, that they don’t want to confront the paper that employs them. Well, I’ve come to the conclusion (after talking with lots of people in lots of these areas, and others) that these self-imposed limits and professional paradigms — professional excuses — are among the largest reasons for the problems we have. The very actions that are Needed, badly, to face and address our problems are those that seem (to many) to be “ruled out” by presently accepted comfort zones in the various disciplines and professions.

    So, I’d like to hear (from Friedman and Krugman) what they are doing, actively and passionately, to have a major impact on improving the Times’ coverage of climate change on all fronts. Can someone ask them? Can they tell us the candid truth, and the reasons why (so to speak), about what they are or aren’t doing to get The Times itself to improve??! Indeed, in the interest of transparency and integrity, I’d like to read about that matter — what they are doing in relation to the need for The Times to improve — before I read anything more from them about what China or Obama or etc. should do. Right? Isn’t that a fair question? Let’s hear from Friedman and Krugman about what The Times should do, and how it and the broader media must improve, before reading them IN The Times about how bad things are and about what the rest of the world should do. The media are a Very Big part of the problem, including The Times, so what can Friedman and etc. tell us about that, and what are they DOING about that?

    To be clear, I do appreciate their columns, but there are many people doing just about everything EXCEPT FOR the one thing that might be most helpful, all things considered, if you know what I mean.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  8. Dave B says:

    Tom Friedman – famous as the inspiration of the time unit “Friedman Unit” – continues to do some of the best enviro writing? Eeeks! If that is true, we are doomed.

    [JR: Uhh, not what I wrote.]

    Meanwhile, in the background on the radio, whack-nut Rep Paul Ryan of Wisconsin seeks to plunge us into an economic depression with his Herbert Hooverisms aimed at cutting demand (= govt spending) even more, and bringing on deflation…

    These are related events, in a way. Replacing pollution sourced electricity could be a massive stimulus to the economy, and it could connect Americans with the fact that economic viability and renewable energy can be connected. But this will only happen when those selling renewable electricity can get a fair price for that electricity – basically the cost to make it plus some reasonable profit. But, failing to get that, few renewables will get installed, and few jobs in renewable energy systems manufacturing will get created, most polluting sourced electricity won’t get replaced with non-polluting sourced electricity, and with few jobs/little economic activity created, there will be no constituency for more renewables. The existing units will keep getting milked for decades, ’till the fuel runs out or the ocean levels rise and flood out the units installed on ocean coastlines. You can’t expect billions of dollars to get invested in renewable energy systems and systems manufacture with the distinct prospect of losing money, especially in these times. And that is the present reality…

    The proposal of many is to raise fossil fuel priced electricity (or viewed another way, quit avoiding the presently avoided costs like CO2 pollution), and then hope that renewables can be competitive. Well, if you add 6 to 10 c/kw-hr onto coal prices, some wind farms might be competitive, but all electricity prices will skyrocket. Or you could raise coal based electricity by a couple of cents/kw-hr and then use the proceeds to subsidize renewable installations (but which ones?), creating the bizarre connection of renewables dependent on fossil fuel usage. This will cause a lot of demand destruction and job destruction, and environmental policies will be blamed for this. Such a PR disaster (equating recessions/depressions with sane environmental policies) will have bad consequences, and never will be allowed to be implemented over a decade of time. And some renewables will just never be competitive, and continue to rely on subsidies…

    Or maybe some of that can be rebated via “cap and trade” to offset the rising price of everything. But since about 60% of electricity used in the U.S. is by industry and commercial entities, that won’t balance, either. While rebating money on a per capita basis from taxes on electricity use would be nice, it will be offset by rising prices of everything, including federal, state and local govt’s, with a need to raise even more taxes….also a PR disaster.

    The one proven way to create jobs and replace pollution sourced electricity and prevent/avoid the installation of more fossil fuel sourced generation at the lowest costs, with the most job creation, in the fastest manner and in the fairest manner is Feed-In Laws. Those don’t require government subsidies and quotas, either, so “the kindness of strangers” charity is not needed, either. And they don’t require that all electricity prices significantly rise in order to make some renewables economically competitive.

    So, taxing fossil fuels is not needed as a way to create renewable energy jobs. It would be a way to raise money and cause demand destruction in the economy, but unless the prime money pit – oil- is primarily addressed, not much good will come of it. These days, raising all electricity prices is about as popular as common sense is at a tea-bagger convention…. which is to say, not.

    Maybe when we have a million people or more directly employed making (and more installing them) renewable energy systems, the idea of gradually taxing pollution based electricity might gain some traction. Right now, we might have 10% of that, and there is just not much economic/social/business clout with that low level. And policies aimed at demand destruction for fossil fuels and nukes might make more sense to more people when lots are employed in making RE systems, and even more people know people involved in making renewables – presently only a minority of people are going to swallow the price increases needed to make renewables viable.

    And we wonder why such policies never get past the gauntlet of industry paid for/rented representatives, and why taxing coal and oil usage are not popular enough to run on as campaign issues. Tying those things to renewable energy job creation seems to be a combination of a pair of movies – “Groundhog Day” and “Dumb and Dumber”. And if you think that the impending trashing of the climate control system of the planet in a decade/two decades/4 decades is going to motivate a country where most people are in fear of losing a job in the next 6 months… think again.

    So where again is the main source of Stupid here? Sure, climate denialists are bad to the bone, or else seem to have the intellects of bricks. But for most people, it’s what happens in the next few months/couple of years that matters, and not much else. What’s going to get them and their friends/relatives/neighbors a job is the most important question that environmentalists need to answer these days. What will stimulate economic demand in a manner that Feed-In Laws have in Germany, and is now doing in Ontario, in this country needs to be seriously addressed, and not with more tax credits/tax deductions/tax avoidance schemes.

    Once you equate jobs with renewable energy as a reality and not some vague iffy concept, then the sane climate policies like taxing CO2 pollution as well as imported oil and oil products will get a better reception. Till then, taxing CO2 pollution is going to be viewed as being similar to getting a nasty dose of the crabs – as undesired, but at least fixable. And that is not good at all.

    Renewable energy jobs can be a cure to the impending tea-bagger plague. Also a nice aspect to them, and why they will be fought against so hard by Palinesque lead people behaving like corporate controlled zombies. Resident Evil indeed…

    DB

  9. george ennis says:

    If the reality of climate change does indeed turn out as bad as the models suggest I suspect that the US on the basis of an ongoing and long term emergency threatening the security of its citizens will be forced to adopt government actions to combat combat and/or adapt to climate change that will make it similar to China in everything but name. This is what delays on climate change will bring about poltically. This is what the GOP will also be remebered for.

    Alternatively actions taken today could avoid that future.

  10. Tyler says:

    It’s an interesting situation. The Conservatives who are acting as a barrier to political action in North America say they can’t move forward with cap-and-trade or carbon taxes because it would hurt our economies by forcing us to buy low-cost cleantech goods from China, thereby killing jobs here and creating jobs there. Yet the reality is that, by not acting, China is going to move forward aggressively without contest, and in the end we’ll end up losing jobs to them and buying their goods. Can it be true that we’re screwed either way? Some day is new clean technologies will reduce demand for oil so much that the marginal oil sands become too costly and pointless. That’s the told-you-so moment that one dreads, because by then it’s too late.

  11. Tranche Demerde says:

    They said of the generation that fought World War II that it was “the greatest generation”. Well, Brookah coined it but it stuck.

    We are “the stupidest generation”. We’ll be able to sit back in our uncomfortable retirement just as the sh*t really starts hitting the fan and say to our descendants, those who will be supporting us or in some way allowing us to live, “we wrecked this place”.

  12. Economists can hardly finish a sentence without the word “growth” in it.
    Cheap energy has been a driving force behind the growth we’ve enjoyed (suffered?)
    Krugman et al. will need to devise new models to describe an economy in transition. Green industries will grow while the old oil and coal die.

  13. Barry says:

    The China model, like the Obama model, seems to be “yes to green AND yes to brown.”

    As Joe points out, until the Chinese stop building coal plants the climate will continue to spiral out of human’s ability to stop the damage from accelerating.

    The future depends on China and USA shutting down CO2 emissions. Period. Full stop. Until the message from China and USA becomes “no to fossil” we are all heading for misery.

    We can drive off the climate cliff just as easily in an electric bamboo recycled-plastic eco-car powered by coal as we can in a Hummer.

    As long as we keep burning fossil we lose. Until we have a plan to leave most of the remaining fossil in the ground — we lose.

  14. Barry says:

    I should add that the GOP model is “NO to green and YES to brown”.

    They obviously want their kids’ future misery delivered as quickly as possible.

    To be fair, I think their motivation is to have as much cake as they can cram in right now, and they don’t really care about, or think about, “tomorrow” if it gets in the way of nice fluffy towels today.

  15. Fire Mountain says:

    I look around my country, the erstwhile “greatest country in the world,” and it is hard to conclude anything that the United States, its political system, its economic system, its very culture, are moving into precipitous decline. We borrow money from the Chinese to fight unwinnable wars driven by some twisted sense of national mission. We let state and local governments go bankrupt while only marginally cutting the Pentagon. Nearly one-third of students drop out of high school, while much of the rest drops behind students in many nations where learning isn’t “un-cool.” Three million jobs actually go unfilled because the skilled people are not there to fill them. Meanwhile, we lose the race in industry after industry, while our undereducated populace in large numbers doesn’t believe evolution, let alone global warming. From our elites to the streets, we are arrogant and lazy, characteristic of a people on top for so long we think it will never end. It is ending as we speak. I anticipate very tough readjustments in America as the reality of the Asian Century dawns, with all manner of ugly recriminations. Ultimately, we’ll have to look in the mirror, and I don’t think we’ll like what we see.

  16. sime says:

    Fiddling while Rome burns…

    America is your country, the future of your children and grandchildren is at stake, get off your collective backsides and sort out these idiot politicians or end up on the scrapheap.

  17. Sailesh Rao says:

    “The push for green in China is a practical discussion on health and wealth. There is no need to emphasize future consequences when people already see, eat and breathe pollution every day.”

    This seems to be the key for Chinese action and American inaction. In most Chinese cities, I’m told that it is not possible to see the stars at night as the pollution is so thick. China is reaching its “Clean Air Act” moment precisely when climate change is also forcing itself into the Chinese consciousness. Meanwhile, Americans are lulled into inaction with power plant scrubbers that make their pollution, out of sight, out of mind.

    Despite their truculence on being told what to do by the OECD countries, India and China seem to be taking the deployment of renewable energy very seriously. Now, if only they would take the protection of their living biosphere just as seriously…

  18. Iain says:

    Fire Mountain really makes the most interesting point here. At the end of the day, the western world, well, let’s be honest, the US, has been completely designed to “Go Shopping”. That is all there is, retail. Industry is outsourced and credit cards are the norm…like a bizarre twist of fate from the Flintstones…Charrrrggge It…

  19. Another great article from Mr. Friedman. I particularly liked his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded.

    It is no surprise China is taking the lead in what I call the cleantech arms race : America won’t move because of politics and Europe moves but not as fast as it should – Germany being a notable exception.

    The People’s Republic takes the lead and will most likely keep it as it revealed a $738 billion dollar plan – 545 billion euros – to develop cleaner energy sources within the next decade. (cf. http://fwd4.me/fCG )